Thrust into a psychologically intense situation, the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" finds Roderick Usher hyper-sensitive and tortured mentally, "laboring with some oppressive secret," a secret that may be that of the in-breeding of the Usher family, whose lineage the narrator describes as having put forth
at no period, any enduring branch...that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always...so lain.
With a mansion desolate and terrible in its aspect, Poe links the decay of the house with that of the Usher family. When the narrator first meets Roderick, the man greets him with an "overdone cordiality... of the constrained effort of the ennuye man of the world"; his physical appearance is greatly altered--a "cadaverousness of complexion"--suggesting a strange sympathy between the body and mind.
As the narrator examines Usher further, he detects "an excessive nervous agitation," that vacillates between exhibiting liveliness and a certain sullenness; his voice is now tremulous and hesitant, then explosively energetic. While the narrator finds similarities with Roderick's behavior and that of an opium user, Roderick explains that he has a "nervous affection." However, this condition deepens as the narrator stays with his old school friend. His senses are tortuously acute, so Roderick eats only bland food, wears only the softest cloth, bears only a faintest light on his eyes, and tolerates only dull sounds. He is, the narrator comments, bound to "an anomalous species of terror." This abnormal terror is fear of anything that reaches his senses in the superlative. He tells the narrator,
"...the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."
This statement presages his encounter with the macabre figure of his sister Madeline, a figure that shortly thereafter passes through the room. After this sighting, Roderick demonstrates a "highly distempered ideality"--a mental derangement--as he pursues his aesthetic endeavors as an escape from the reality of his fear of Madeline's deterioration from her disease. Oddly, Roderick paints a "phantasmagoric conception" of a tunnel and a vault, suggestive of a tomb and reflective of his distrubed imaginings. His poem, "The Haunted Palace," describes a palace overrun by hideous and fantastic forms," reflective of his bizarre and disturbed ideas. The poem ends with a laugh that is unaccompanied by a smile, a crazed exclamation.
As his mind deteriorates, Roderick believes the decaying of the trees and mansion itself with its fungi and the atmosphere of the tarn, have a consciousness that effect the fate of the Ushers. In fact, Roderick's behavior seems to parallel that of the condition of the mansion as he feels this connection in his mental derangement.
One day, Roderick tells his friend that the lady Madeline is "no more." Moreover, he states that he plans to intern her temporarily in a vault in the house. While Madeline's face has the "blush" of life on her yet, Roderick's condition worsens as his voice has a "tremulous quaver" and he is"cadaverously wan" with a "mad hilarity" in his eyes.
One night as the narrator reads aloud, Roderick is rigid, murmuring that he hears "it": "We have put her living in the tomb." With a fury of his terrorized mind, leaping to his fear, he shrieks that she, the manifestation of the "grim phantasm" of his fear is outside the door.